Square peg

The double-crossing dishonesty of the current devolution settlement is there for all to see in the deep and wide-ranging cuts in jobs, public services and the concept of society currently being undertaken by every one of Wales’ 22 local authorities. These cuts are happening because the Welsh government reduced the councils’ block grants, and that happened because the London government slashed the Assembly’s block grant. So, in effect, everything that matters is still being decided by the neo-Con free-marketeers of Whitehall, and the Assembly is just the fall-guy; there to administer and implement UK fiscal policies, tinker at the edges where possible – and take the flak.

If we had a single Welsh council with pride, passion, radicalism and a coherent political philosophy then these cuts could be fought; once upon a time Welsh local authorities defended the people rather than cravenly did the bidding of central government, but those days are gone. In Cardiff, for instance, the Labour council is biting massive chunks out of the city’s public sphere in countless ways, instead of, say, dipping into £50 million in emergency reserves, or staunching the deluge of public money chucked at big business, speculators and management consultants. Behind the crocodile tears and rueful talk of “tough times”, the council is breaking every election pledge made a mere two years ago, hurting the weakest, protecting the strongest and showing staggering cynicism and short-termism in its choice of targets. A typical example of this is their plans for one of Cardiff’s most magnificent buildings, a building central to the city’s history and identity: the Coal Exchange in Mount Stuart Square.

For the council to even contemplate demolishing the Grade II listed building would be insanity. But amazingly this is what’s intended, and the plans are well advanced. Rather than compulsory purchase it from owners Macob Exchange, not equipped to be custodians of such an important building, and then spend whatever it takes to restore the crumbling ruin and thus endow the city with a priceless long-term asset, the council are choosing the cheap ‘n’ nasty option of more or less total demolition, keeping a couple of facades, and filling the innards with apartments, shops, business hubs, atriums, banqueting rooms and the usual blah-blah bullshit. That way they can wash their hands of responsibility for Cardiff’s built heritage, sweep more of Cardiff’s industrial past under the carpet, draw a veil over Cardiff’s coal-fired chronicle, prop up their property developer pals and, oh yeah, save money. The final remnant of Cardiff’s docklands is in serious jeopardy; the time is right to examine this special corner of the city before it’s all gone.

The only part of Cardiff to truly deliver the scale and punch of an important metropolis is Mount Stuart Square. It was built as a select residential enclave around ornamental gardens for merchants and sea captains in 1855, and originally consisted of 45 stuccoed three-storey town houses of graceful simplicity, decorated with charming shells moulded into the stucco above the first floor windows. The Square was transformed when the Coal Exchange was built in the central gardens between 1884 and 1888; the residential function disappeared and it became the commercial centre of Cardiff Docks. Those of the original town houses not converted were replaced by purpose-built offices for coal and shipping firms.

Mount Stuart Square, 1915

Mount Stuart Square, 1915

There are 10 survivors, in current numbering: numbers 6, 7, 8 and 9 on the east side; numbers 53, 58 and 59 on the north side; and numbers 21-23 on the south side, many retaining their fetching shell motifs. Those not vacant are occupied by charities, production companies and public bodies. Of particular interest is number 9, Perch Buildings, which was given a pretty ground-floor frontage of Bath stone in 1889, and number 7, Ceredig House, where an entrance to an old stable yard is now a seductive narrow passageway through to West Bute Street. The remaining houses were replaced by extravagant monumental buildings, vying with each other to impress. Most are still with us, forming the city’s most dramatic architectural aggregation.


Cambrian Buildings: The impossibly confident 1907 HQ of the Cambrian Coal Combine, the Rhondda’s most powerful mining group. Cambrian was run by hyperactive Aberdare-born individualist David Thomas (1856-1918), Liberal MP for both Merthyr (1888-1910) and Cardiff (1910), unbending foe of the miners’ unions and, after being made Lord Rhondda by Lloyd George in 1917, Cardiff’s ultimate “dreadful knight.” Check out the exquisite miniature sculptures on maritime themes (sea monsters, sailing ships, anchors etc) decorating the fantastical six-storey façade. Around the corner in West Bute Street, the far-fetched artistry continues in the 1911 addition, Cymric Buildings. These are the masterworks of unsung Cardiff architect Henry Budgen (1870-1927).

■Beynon House: Next door, an equally over-the-top, florid, beast of a building, caked in nautical symbols. It was built in 1900 for the Black Vein Steam Coal operation of John Beynon (1864-1944), another oligarch who was the biggest coal owner in the Gwent valleys and lived at Coldra House, Newport (part of the Celtic Manor golf club today).

■Empire House: The last temple to King Coal built in Cardiff, for great survivors Evans & Reid in 1926.  When this seven-storey Georgian-style whopper muscled into the Square, the first building in Cardiff to have a reinforced concrete skeleton, Cardiff’s coal trade was on the skids.  But somehow, Evans & Reid bucked the trend and they are still in Mount Stuart Square, at number 6 on the east side.


Baltic House: One of the three chapels of Mount Stuart Square, the 1858 Welsh Congregational Chapel, was demolished in 1912 to make way for this domineering office block, which quickly filled with agents, brokers, insurers and contractors. Almost outdoing the main entrance to the Coal Exchange, which it faces, Baltic House is a dizzy composition of incised stonework, seafaring emblems and soaring pilasters.

■Marine House: Jostling shoulder-to-shoulder next door, and by no means overwhelmed, Marine House is a 1903 office conversion of three original townhouses, with the Square’s shell motif prominent and an old arched entrance to stables on the side. Formerly alive with the hubbub and bustle of shipping companies, today it’s deserted and in need of attention.


■Lloyds Bank: All the major banks had showpiece premises in the Docks; Lloyds with this sturdy classic in 1891.

■Phoenix Buildings: Siloam Welsh Baptists occupied this site originally; but God is no match for Mammon and these brick and stone commercial offices were erected in 1901. The phoenixiest phoenix imaginable sits above the door.

■Coptic House: There is hardly an architectural genre in existence that doesn’t get a good going-over in Mount Stuart Square…so why not a gorgeously incongruous 1910 attempt at Mock Rustic? Designed by another forgotten Cardiff architect Ivor Jones (1881-1953), it features 10 lions’ heads across the middle of the building.

■Crichton House: Originally a branch of the Capital & Counties Bank when built in 1898, this handsome stone pile with port-hole windows on its 5th floor was turned into more coal brokers’ offices when Lloyds Bank swallowed up their competitor in 1918.


■Aberdare House: An 1895 conversion of two of the original town houses into office chambers which backed onto the Glamorganshire Canal with a fancifully decorated Bath stone façade pulled off with aplomb.

■Mount Stuart House: The 1899 four-storey offices of John Cory & Son are a lavish and elaborate composition in stone and brick on the corner with James Street.  Of all the shipping tycoons of Cardiff none had more impact, nor made more money, than the two quite distinct dynasties confusingly both called Cory. The other, Cory Brothers in Bute Place, became a coal exporting giant with depots and agencies on all the world’s great sea lanes. Brothers John Cory (1828-1910) and Richard Cory (1830-1914) from Bideford used their wealth to become major supporters of Nonconformism and the Temperance Movement in Cardiff, establishing the Cory Hall and the YMCA in Station Terrace (both demolished 1983). This Cory family were less charitable but just as influential, so much so that a whole suburb of Cardiff bears their name: Coryton. Their shipping firm was founded by John Cory (1823-1891) from Padstow and built up by his hard-boiled sons, John Cory II (1855-1931) and Tory MP Herbert Cory (1857-1933). I always think of my mother when I walk past the building. As a child in the 1930s her father, William Griffiths (1897-1946), a shipping clerk with John Cory & Son, sometimes took her to his office on the top floor at weekends. And up there, perched at a rear window, she would watch the boat horses steadily pulling creaking barges along the Glamorganshire Canal below.

Next to Mount Stuart House used to be Mount Stuart Square’s 3rd chapel, the 1858 Bethel Chapel, which from 1965 to 1985 was the Casablanca, one of Tiger Bay’s last nightclubs. Despite being a listed building and a vital part of the Bay’s music scene it was demolished to extend a car park which had developed to its north when three of the 1850s town houses were pulled down in the 1970s.


Carbon’s Cathedral in the centre of the Square is a sumptuous, overcooked feast whose sheer bulk paradoxically pulls the whole Square together and delivers the definitive urban experiences of claustrophobia and human irrelevance by throttling sight-lines and blotting out the sky.  It’s actually quite difficult to get a proper look at it without straining your neck, so comparatively narrow are the four sides of the Square.  The brainchild of solicitor and property developer Frederick de Courcy Hamilton (1856-1940), the Exchange was designed by Edwin Seward (1853-1924), who was given a blank cheque by the coal barons and made the most of it in a display of unapologetically vulgar swagger, all four facades presenting a quite different cornucopia of windows, doors, steps, chimneys, pediments, gables, columns, arches and decorative twiddles.

Seward redesigned the interior triumphantly in 1911 when Cardiff coal ships commanded the seas and the Exchange set the world price of coal. The oak-panelled and floored Exchange Hall with tiers of balconies, Corinthian columns, massively enriched plaster ceiling and high-concept carvings, statues, mottos and symbols is an authoritative and evocative space (a false ceiling at second balcony level cropped the lofty Hall in the 1970s, but that could easily be removed).

From the 1990s the Coal Exchange was Cardiff’s finest live music venue until it was bought by property developers Macob and closed down in 2007, to be converted into, yes you guessed, ‘luxury’ apartments.  Planning permission was obligingly granted, but thankfully the project was mothballed after the collapse of the property market (confirming that the development had nothing to do with meeting housing needs and everything to do with making profits) and the building has stood empty ever since, being torn apart by vegetation and damp, whole floors collapsing in on each other within the labyrinthine structure, a stark and depressing indictment of the Cardiff Bay con. Occasional gigs were permitted again from 2009, but these were summarily halted in 2013 due to real danger to life and limb. Anywhere else in Europe no expense would be spared to preserve and conserve a building like the Coal Exchange; but this is Cardiff, where decisions are made according to the ethics of the used-car dealer. The words Tempus Fugit (Time Flies) still dominate the Exchange Hall. Intended as a seize-the-day prod at the jostling, roaring hagglers on the trading floor, now they read more like a fatalistic, jaded shrug.

However, in a strange coda to this sorry saga, a frail sliver of hope has emerged: me! Deep in the remaining habitable section of the building is the office of an exciting new project called The Daily Wales (see http://dailywales.net/). This is the plan: make a fortune by writing you all into submission and then buy the bloody place outright…

…and while I’m at it, I think I’ll also snap up forlorn, empty St Stephens Church, on the Mount Stuart Square/West Bute Street Corner, another shaming example of private selfishness trumping the common good. This typical Anglican church of 1902 in Pennant sandstone, which replaced an 1878 iron church on the site, was deconsecrated in 1992 and became The Point, the Coal Exchange’s main rival as Cardiff’s top music venue, until it too closed down in 2008 because a single resident in the flats of St James Mansions complained about “noise”. It must have been someone very important because the Council’s Health & Safety police duly killed off The Point. If creativity, sociability and good music do not fit with the Bay ‘vision’ of leisure and pleasure, then what does?

Finally, I must mention two of Mount Stuart Square’s disappeared treasures, which would add inestimably to the overall effect today had they only been cared for by Cardiff: the palatial Imperial Buildings, a five-storey hotel in glazed white tiles which stood in the north-west corner from 1913 to 1979 on the site where St James Mansions, with its horrid grey windows and joke Juliet-balconies, was built in 2001; and the eccentric, turreted Gloucester Chambers of 1890, which was on the key corner next to Baltic House until demolished in 1982 and replaced by a hopeless effort in sickly orange brick (number 14-16).